Studies have shown that 401(k) plan participants who take advantage of financial advice or “Help” features of their plan experience higher returns on their investments, with lower risk, but a high percentage of people who have access to advice don’t take it.
So why are so many people afraid of financial advice?
Clark Frese, principal of Asset Strategy Retirement Plan Consultants LLC in Mechanicsburg, Penn., said that it isn’t fear so much as a lack of sophistication about how advice plans would help them.
Most companies have advice options as part of their 401(k) and 403(b) retirement packages, but they cost extra and many people aren’t willing to pay for them, he said.
“I think penetration is 3 to 5 percent, which is not unusual,” Frese said. “I think the average participant, even though they may see information on them, isn’t sophisticated enough to see the value of going into a package like that. It is definitely more of an educational issue, getting people to understand it.”
David Wray, president of the Plan Sponsor Council of America, agrees. “401(k) participants and most people are not financially sophisticated. I think they are sort of intimidated by what they don’t know and it makes it harder for them to be a partner in an advice relationship. In advice, someone is recommending how you act, but you must execute it.”
He added that just because they receive the recommendation doesn’t mean they are sophisticated enough to make an informed decision. That is why the most effective form of advice is face-to-face, Wray says.
One way companies offer advice is via the Internet. Participants can fill out a bunch of information and in return they will get an Internet-communicated advice recommendation. “It is humanless,” Wray said. “People may access that kind of advice, but they don’t execute off of that. They are far more comfortable when they have a conversation with someone and they can ask questions in their own way. They can size a person up a little better,” he said.
Many smaller companies offer their employees an opportunity to sit down with a financial advisor face-to-face. They can bring in an advisor and have participants sign up to speak with that person throughout the day. This option doesn’t work as well with large companies with multiple locations.
“[Large companies] are actually moving toward call centers. You can call someone and talk to them on the phone. It is not as good as face-to-face, but it is better than a raw Internet response,” Wray said. “If you want people to access advice and execute, people need a human interaction to do that.”
One of the companies Frese works with put a retirement package together that included retirement protections for participants and advice.
“It was very popular with participants and it had an 800 number attached. Very few people called the 800 number. There are a percentage of people who will always take advantage of those types of things, but even though this product was popular, people wouldn’t call back more than once.”
You have to put advice in context, Wray said. “People don’t seek advice in 401(k) plans; it is more event-related; for example, when you join a plan, when you have a significant event, if you are changing jobs. Advice is not something people access all the time,” he said. “Most 401(k) participants get their allocations set and basically stay with it. They are very stable in their behavior. … They don’t chase the market or time the market, they just save and diversify.”
He added that there is a “suspicion" by some about anything financial services-related. "Having a plan sponsor-selected advice solution is one way to get people to take advice. Right now, plan sponsors are more trusted by most workers than financial services folks. When plan sponsors provide the service, individuals are more willing to utilize it. That is one of the benefits of having a plan sponsor-offered program; it overcomes that reactive suspicion in the minds of many.”
A recent report by Financial Engines and Aon Hewitt, “Help in Defined Contribution Plans: Is It Working and for Whom?” found that 30 percent of 401(k) participants used professional help by the end of 2010, up from just 25 percent in 2009. Part of that is because more plan sponsors are auto enrolling new hires into their 401(k) plans, the report said. “Re-enrolling all plan participants into a qualified default investment alternative can have a significant positive impact on Help usage,” according to the report. One plan sponsor that re-enrolled its entire plan into managed accounts saw Help usage of more than 50 percent.
Age also plays into who will take advantage of advice. The Financial Engines survey found that “younger participants with smaller account balances are most likely to use target-date funds, while younger participants with larger account balances are more likely to use online advice. Near-retirees are most likely to use managed accounts.”
Frese has seen more interest in the target date approach than an off-the-shelf option when it comes to plan options. Most prepackaged plans are cheaper and a “participant does get allocation assistance, which is what they are after in the end,” he said. “I think the trend should really be to give participants a retirement projection of some kind.”
Most 401(k) account statements tell participants how much money they have in their account and how much they have lost or gained. They don’t get participants thinking about how much they need at retirement and what kind of income they will receive from their account balance, he said. Plan participants need an easy way to check off and get investment assistance.
“There could be an advice package for those who are more sophisticated, but the average participant needs something simple he can check off on an enrollment form,” Frese said. If they check the form saying they are interested in financial advice, they would receive a call from the plan’s financial advisor. “That gives them a level of advice and more diversification than the average participant gets,” he said.
Baby Boomers used professional help the most, according to the Financial Engines report. It also found that participants who didn’t take advantage of financial advice, particularly those age 50 or older, had inappropriate investments based on their proximity to retirement. Most financial advisors tell people to reduce their investment risk as they get older.
“The failure to reduce risk as they age could potentially threaten participants’ ability to retire should the market suddenly decline, as it did in 2008, or go through a particularly volatile period, such as the third quarter of 2011,” according to the report, which gleaned its information from eight large 401(k) plans from 8,200 participants to 145,000 participants. Collectively, the plans represent more than 425,000 participants with over $25 billion in assets.
People close to retirement who did not take advantage of their plan’s “help” feature also showed the highest incidence of panic during the 2008 downturn, with trading activity that led to significantly worse investment performance results in 2009, the report found.